Projects / Writings

Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story Premiere, Reviews, Press!

“The story of Sacajawea glowed in a new, Indigenous-centered Opera Theater Oregon production.” ~ James Bash, Oregon Arts Watch


Composer-flutist Hovia Edwards and composer-conductor Justin Ralls performing Opera Theater Oregon’s “Nu Nah-Hup” at Hampton Opera Center. Photo by Josh Orchard.


“Ralls created lovely soundscapes that combined the Native flutes with a chamber orchestra, consisting of strings, flutes, bass clarinet, horn, piano, and percussion. His music shifted organically – from languid to joyful to tense – and it all worked well to set the scene and convey the drama. His conducting was very energetic and clear, and that communicated well to the orchestral ensemble, which sat at a formidable distance on the other side of the stage.”

Listen here to this beautiful interview on OPB’s Think Out Loud with Dave Miller, Rose Ann Abrahamson, and Executive Director, Lisa Lipton.

In an historic first, Opera Theater Oregon brought the story of Sacajawea centerstage with captivating intensity at the Hinckley Studio Theatre in the Hampton Opera Center…

Read Oregon Arts Watch Review

Sacajawea’s Story Cast and Friends


New Work Celebrates 200th birthday of Frederick Law Olmsted

Juventas Ensemble rehearses “Olmsted 200″ in Boston, March 2022

Olmsted 200: Theme and Variations is a new work for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Vibraphone to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. will be premiered on March 26, 2022 by Juventas New Music Ensemble at Boston’s Multicultural Arts Center with future performances planned by American Wild Ensemble and Michigan Technical University.

Olmsted 200: Theme and Variations was composed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and founder of the field of landscape architecture. The legacy of his work and that of his firm lies in the numerous parks, defining America’s planned landscapes, believing that a democratic society needed natural and public spaces that would replace “debasing pursuits and brutalized pleasure.” Olmsted believed aesthetically designed natural and public spaces would have a moral influence on human behavior, promoting “communitevness,” a healthy participation in civic life, and the common good.

Olmsted 200: Theme and Variations specifically commemorates the first Olmsted park in Seattle, Lincoln Park (later renamed Cal Anderson Park). Designed by the Olmsted firm (led by his son John C. Olmsted) between 1901 and 1904, Cal Anderson Park is a palimpsest, or a theme and variations; each generation and historical moment reevaluating the purpose and ideal of a city park and public space. Olmsted was meticulous with design and was an artist as much as an architect. He designed parks as a “work of art…framed upon a single, noble motive” also stating, “Landscapes move us in a manner more nearly analogous to action of music than to anything else….” I began to conceive the piece as a highly structured, yet ever evolving musical landscape with distinct themes, motives, and a block-like structure including metric variation and meter itself as a motive device. Olmsted was a social reformer, working for The Nation magazine before the American Civil War, exposing the horrors of slavery and advocating for abolition. His parks were a conscious effort to oppose both slavery and aristocracy. During the Civil War he served as a Sanitation Secretary. Olmsted came of age and matured in his thinking following the Civil War and his life parallels the progressive and historic Age of Lincoln in both its idealism and contradictions. Olmsted was visionary in his insistence on public health, equality, the power of nature, and democratic values imbued in public spaces.

During the historic protests over the murder of George Floyd, subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020 found their Seattle epicenter at Cal Anderson Park. Olmsted’s vision of a democratic space for public health, beauty and recreation was put to its ultimate test as militarized police clashed with protestors night after night. Chants of “Black lives matter” mixed in a cacophony of frequent flash bang grenades and tear gas and even gunfire. Yet, among the milieu, mutual aid tents sprung up in the park, a community garden, labor organizing, and gathering of Indigenous speakers, musicians, and activists. New conversations arose to re-define the vision and purpose of the park.  The park has gone through many changes yet remains as an important, if not contested, public space—its ultimate future uncertain.

The piece is measured in years beginning with the year of Olmsted’s birth, 1822. The theme passes through time, variations and history, marking moments both for Olmsted and CalAnderson Park. Quotes of tunes, such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic,  heard in the park during the revivalist meetings in the early  20th Century appear in counterpoint with a Black Lives Matter chant. The theme, signifying Olmsted’s motive/ideal, is contrasted with busy arpeggios which speed through the years eventually opening up into a formless future: a democratic musical space where the ensemble is free to create their own variations and ending, symbolic of how Olmsted’s structures and ideals are bound to vary, layer, and build upon another in a perpetual theme and variation.


Nu-Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story

NOVEMBER 4, 2021 – OPERA THEATER OREGON is excited to announce a new intercultural collaboration with Aqai-Dika/Lemhi-Shoshone culture bearer and descendant of Sacajawea, Rose Ann Abrahamson.  Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story will reimagine the extraordinary Shoshone woman who was a crucial member of the historic 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, from her Aqai-Dika Indigenous perspective in a new opera-theater work.

“Given this name as a child, according to Aqai Dika naming traditions, ‘Sacatzaweya’ (pronounced Saca-ja-we-ya) means ‘That is her burden’…We are telling Sacajawea’s story, her story, from an Aqai Dika perspective from her female familial descendants and people, a woman’s story from women.  This story will share tradition, history and culture of Sacajawea from the viewpoint and oral history of the women of her people.  The songs will express these aspects, and most importantly her language will be preserved through operatic songs.”

~Rose Ann Abrahamson

Rose Ann Abrahamson and Justin Ralls at the Sacajawea Education, Interpretive and Cultural Center in Salmon, Idaho – the ancestral homeland of the Aqai-Dika people.

On November 4, 1804 Sacajawea is first mentioned by William Clark as one of “wives” of Toussaint Charbonneau, stating “we engau him to go on with us and take one of his wives to interpet the Snake language.” (‘Snake’ being another name for the Shoshone). Little did Lewis and Clark know just how crucial Sacajawea and her people would be to the expedition’s success or that she would endure as one the most famous members of the expedition. She remains one of the most famous women in American history, yet few have told her story from her Aqai-Dika perspective. Last month our nation celebrated our first official Indigenous People’s Day and this month we honor November as Native American Heritage Month. This project aims to honor, through opera, the remarkable contributions and unique experience of Indigenous peoples, past, present, and future.

We are incredibly fortunate to be collaborating and guided by Rose Ann Abrahamson, great-great-grandniece of Sacajawea, through Chief Cameahwait (brother of Sacajawea), and great-great granddaughter of Chief Tendoy (son of Chief Cameahwait). Rose Ann is an educator, storyteller, culture bearer, historian, and respected tribal stateswoman of the Aqai-Dika (“Salmon Eaters”) Lemhi-Shoshone Nation and an enrolled member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, located in Fort Hall, Idaho. We are also thrilled to collaborate with Shoshone composer, singer, and flutist Hovia Edwards. Key collaborators also include tenor and dramaturg, Katherine Goforth.

Justin Ralls and Hovia Edwards in Pocatello, Id.

The first stage in the development of this new work will culminate with a workshop and public performance of a scene based on an incident of domestic violence recorded in the original expedition journals on August 14, 1805 and will be presented in Portland, Oregon. We are excited that work on this scene has already begun, including the completion of a libretto featuring English, Québécois, Agai-Dika/Shoshone, and Plains Sign Language!

Updates on cast, collaborators, production dates, community partners and more to be announced!

A crucial aspect of this opera project is our efforts to preserve Agai-Dika/Lemhi-Shoshone language and oral histories. This exciting project designed by Rose Ann Abrahamson, linguist Jennifer Mitchell from the The Shoshoni Language Project at the University of Utah, and Artistic Director, Justin Ralls will help document and preserve the endangered Agai-Dika dialect and language. The team is honored to have recently received the 2022 Native Voices Endowment Award from the Endangered Language Fund at Yale University.



Upon viewing ‘Bacchus’ I instantly connected to the story of a young woman caught in the conforming routines of everyday modern life, who then finds liberation, vitality and indulgence through the mythical, archetypal dream-character of Bacchus.
The expressionist and surreal style of ‘Bacchus’ explicitly evokes the jazz-age art of the late 1920s and 1930s, reminiscent of Kandinsky, Picasso, and other modernist artists.  I conceptualized my score as an homage to the jazz-infused orchestral colors of Ravel and Gershwin, the chromaticism of Scriabin, and the brilliant orchestration of Respighi, Korngold, reminiscent of old Hollywood scores. As Bacchus invites the character to indulge her passions, I indulged my own – scoring for full orchestra and an array of novel instruments which make sonic cameos, including a clay-vessel-bird whistle from Peru, an Australian bull roar, a Ghanaian xylophone, and a theremin made from a cigar box and radio shack parts (the theremin was the first electronic instrument introduced in the 1920s).
The protagonist is musically embodied by soprano vocalise (beautifully realized by my friend and talented soprano Megan Uhrinak). I felt this an appropriate moment for an expressionist ‘poème de l’extase’ in the final climatic sequence of the film (and what else but grand opera achieves such ecstatic indulgence of the composer?). Overall, I dedicate this score as an homage to the great composers whose work the piece inspired and from whom I have learned much.


Ecomusicollapsology is my own original neologism to describe the synthesis of ecomusicology and collapsology, an area of research which engages the intersection of music, culture, and nature, in the context of the collapse of ecological systems and/or the collapse of complex societies.

Ecomusicology, or ecocritical musicology, is the study of music, culture, and nature in all the complexities of those terms (Allen and Dawe 2016).The term collapsology is a neologism used to designate the transdisciplinary study of the risks of collapse of our industrial civilization, yet is also concerned with the “general collapse of societies induced by climate change, scarcity of resources, vast extinctions, and natural disasters,” and more (Daoudy 2020).

Ecomusicollapsology, therefore is an emergent field of study which engages the various ways human music and culture are entwined with local and global ecologies and how these relationships are affected by ecological and societal collapse.


Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest

Above: 2020 painting, “The Burden of Forever,” inspired by the themes and story of SMBBF. Photo courtesy of John Teply and the Elisabeth Jones Art Center for Ecology and Social Justice.

Below are the prefatory pages to my Ph.D. dissertation, “Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest, an Eco-fairytale Opera in three Acts.” 



The story of Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest is derived from a legend from the Mbuti people (also known as Bambuti), one of many ethnic groups of indigenous Central African Foragers of the Congo region of Africa. First published in Colin Turnbull’s classic ethnography, The Forest People, the legend tells of a young boy who upon hearing a bird brings it back to his camp. He asks his father to feed the bird (which his father reluctantly does) and the bird sings the ‘Most Beautiful Song in the Forest.’ This scene repeats three times, whereupon after the son leaves, the annoyed father kills the bird, and with the bird its song, and with the song the father unwittingly kills himself and drops dead.* The popular writer of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, interpreted this story as an allegory for what happens when a culture forgets its myths, stories, and life-supporting relationships. At a time when both the diversity of life on earth, as well as the cultural integrity and diversity of ethnic groups (such as the Mbuti) are severely threatened, I believe this story signifies a powerful lesson: if we do not respect, listen, and live in a balanced ecological relationship with the planet and with each other, we risk our own extinction. It also signifies that by diminishing the natural world, we diminish our own potential.

In adapting this story as a contemporary opera, I was sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation. I strove toward an emic perspective; hopefully creating a work that explores and honors the original meaning of the legend in a new form. I do not claim to represent, mimic, or take elements of Mbuti culture but rather explore function and the nature of relationships between music, story, and the natural world. Influenced by stories and folklore in creating an original composite story, I changed the character of the boy to a young girl and added additional characters (such as an older female mentor or shaman figure, She Who Sings from the Heart, and an otherworldly human-animal hybrid, Owl Spirit) as well as ecological themes (the bird’s song “brings the rain”). Most significantly, I explore an alternate ending: the young girl, after learning the song of the most beautiful bird, appears to sing the bird and the world back to life. The Daughter’s eventual learning of the bird’s magical song furthers the opera as a ‘coming-of-age’ story, where the Daughter discovers ecological awareness alongside her own empowerment. This adaptation took influence from many tales incorporating mythical birds, the power of song and dance to revitalize the world, and the corruptions of ignorance and power. Such influences include the fairy tale and Stravinsky opera, Song of the Nightingale, the Native American Blackfoot tale, The Buffalo’s Wife, Rimsky Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, and Shakespeare’s King Lear among several others. The additional characters and their function also took influence from a Native American play, Power Pipes, by Spiderwoman Theater; a work that weaves themes of matrilineal indigenous knowledge, dance, storytelling, and song to heal trauma and initiate.†

The character of the Owl Spirit is my personal interpretation of a being that mediates between worlds. I purposely did not take direct influence from any specific culture, and acknowledge the cultural diversity of Owl beings throughout the world, including the diversity of Native American interpretations of the Owl. Rather, it is my own ecological and mythological Owl as an other-than-human ambassador—a being between night and day, and for the animals it eats, between life and death—which I find compelling and relevant to my own experience in the forest of the Pacific Northwest. Such a mediator between worlds, bringing messages from beyond human experience, is the Owl Spirit’s function in the opera, guiding the daughter and audience in a liminal space, a place of transformation. It is possible to interpret Owl Spirit as trans-gender—a group that I hold no claim to represent— yet, whose presence may deepen the significance of this character in the liminal space of the opera. On many levels the opera embraces a liminal quality of processing and living within transition. As the Earth’s climate and biosphere transitions into new and unknown states, so perhaps a hybrid being, neither human nor animal, male nor female, material nor spiritual, could perhaps uniquely guide us in new mythologies of transformation.

While the music of the Mbuti is extraordinary (included in the UNESCO Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage) the opera is not set in Africa and the music (with the exception of the two ensemble dances) is not overtly African. The opera could be set in any forest community in the world, real or imagined. Rather, I strove to ask deeper questions of how non-Western traditions and cultures functioned in their environment and how music can sonically explore these questions. For example, Mbuti music is performed outdoors in the rainforest, comingling with the natural soundscape; both human and animal sounds take advantage of the acoustic environment in an orchestration of human and non-human sound and expression, co-evolved over time. Their traditional stories, dances, and rituals engage real and symbolic beings and elements of the forest, making explicit links between culture, environment, and performance. Engaging these links through contemporary Western opera and my own unique perspective in time and place was a driving force in conceiving Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest.

While it is not required, I encourage the outdoor performance of this piece in a natural forest amphitheater. In this way, the opera may further mythologize and engage many environments, forests, and cultures on their own terms. Potential outdoor performance influenced the opera’s instrumentation of percussion, winds, and harp—all instruments that carry well outdoors (e.g. mm. 1-29, Prologue, Act One). The idea of ‘acoustic niche’ is explored in novel improvisatory episodes, where winds (doubling on slide whistles and bird callers) may freely create their own soundscape (mm. 87-113, Prologue, Act One). In another example (m. 595, Act Two), the Daughter and instrumentalists may freely improvise, interact, and mimic each other in an imagined soundscape. This approach, I believe, explores the functions and aesthetics of world traditions without appropriating specific cultural characteristics. The combination of voice, winds, and percussion instruments also have a rich legacy of evoking nature and ritual in composed music from the last century from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to the West African- inspired minimalist work of Steve Reich, the atmospheric music of George Crumb, and the outdoor operas and site-specific works of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s Patria (whose work has been influenced by the function and beliefs of First Nations traditions, without appropriating cultural meanings). In the case of these influences, I strove to learn from other templates of musical expression and context that could explore the opera’s themes in novel ways and open cultural exchange and new modes of expression.

For example, the “war dance” at the close of, Scene One, Act One (m. 337) is loosely derived from the Ghanaian Ewe dance Agbekor, which I learned while studying with Ghanaian master drummer and dancer, Dr. Habib Iddrisu. Scholar Jeff Todd Titon has written that the origin of Agbekor may derive from hunters watching monkeys (alluded to in a story told by the Father in Act One, Scene One). Like many African dances, it has evolved from a culturally specific ritual into a pan-cultural performance practice, staged in ever-evolving variations. My variant of Agbekor portrays a dance of war between the people and animals. In this way, I have striven to preserve the cultural origins of this Ewe dance, employing its meaning in the context of the opera and its themes of conflict and relations between humans and animals. This is further explored in the opening dance of Act Three. This dance is a transcription of Balankung, a traditional dance of the Dagomba ethnic group of Northern Ghana. According to Dr. Habib Iddrisu, this dance was heard in his childhood to scare away animals and birds away from crops at harvest time. This dance, however, is no longer performed in Ghana. Dr. Iddrisu has revived it as a presentational performance work with his group, Dema, at the University of Oregon (with whom I learned and performed the piece). The original dance included slit log drums (“balankung”) alongside gourd shakers and ankle rattles worn by dancers. Dr. Iddrisu made an addition of the cajón (an Afro-Caribbean instrument) as homage to the ongoing evolution of West African music across the globe. In this spirit, the dance is included in the score (with permission) in an effort to further preserve this unique cultural tradition and contribute to this ongoing evolution. As with Agbekor, the inclusion of Balankung exemplifies an emic perspective where unique cultural context is woven into the story—not to represent Africa or the Dabomba people—but as exploration of internal function (and the Father again articulates the dance’s function within the story-world of the opera; mm. 148-150, Scene One, Act One). My hope is the opera synthesizes disparate influences, filtered through a unique artistic voice. Balankung also reveals questions of the complexity of human/animal relations, especially in the context of agricultural society. The relationships between different societies and their local fauna and the other-than-human world are always in flux. The inclusion of Balankung ventures into its own liminal space, opening up questions of cultural appropriation vs. cultural exchange in new expression. I believe such exchange is necessary if cultures are to come together, learn, listen and create paradigms for new and emerging futures. We must work together in concert toward a newly defined respect for each other and the planet, highlighting our diversity but also our common goal toward a more compassionate ecological society. In this way the opera is an experiment in such exchange, initiating a challenging but necessary conversation, as we work toward redefining our personal and societal relationship with the natural world and relations between culture vis-à-vis another.

An emic perspective of cultural exchange applies to the musical evocation and engagement of nature as well. The opening motive (heard in the winds, mm. 1-6, Prologue) is a musical transcription of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird (Moho braccatus), an extinct member of the Australo-Pacific honeyeaters endemic to the island of Kaua’i. While the opera is influenced by acoustic ecology and natural soundscapes generally, this one species in particular deserves special recognition as its song (and its intrinsic musical motives) permeates the entire piece both on an episodic as well as structural and symbolic level. Not only is the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō’s flute-like, hallow, song incredibly haunting (the recording I listened to may have been the last male bird singing to a mate which would never come), but I felt the bird’s island forest environment was symbolic of ‘Island Earth’ and the ‘glocal forest’ (a local environ linked to global ecologies). Indeed, the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō represents the ‘Song of the Most Beautiful Bird’, whose motives interject the drama and which is eventually learned and sung by the Daughter. Lastly, the inclusion of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō’s song asks questions of romanticizing nature, the Daughter’s song without a doubt is romantic in character, however this music changes with the inclusion of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō motive which acts to segue into an arguably more primordial texture, evoking the rainforest soundscape of the prologue. The closing soundscape and inclusion of bird song also reveals that throughout the opera we have heard the song of the most beautiful bird all along, even if we didn’t know it. This is especially apt in the midst of the climate crisis and Earth’s sixth mass extinction.

The theme of extinction is made explicit when the Daughter meets Owl Spirit, who, in the words of She Who Sings From the Heart, “guides us between worlds.” Owl Spirit’s favorite meal, “flying-squirrels,” reveals this mysterious character to perhaps be a Northern Spotted Owl, an iconic and controversial species of Northwest old- growth forests that, despite our best efforts, is on its way toward extinction. As the branches of the tree of life are broken, Owl Spirit confronts the young girl with a terrible question, “You do not know who will go next do you?” The last scene of the opera—when the young girl appears to sing the bird back to life—is intended to be ambiguous, dependent upon the interpretation of the artists realizing the work and the perspectives of the audience receiving it. My hope is the presence of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō engages the central themes and questions of the opera: can we learn the Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest and prevent our own extinction?

*Turnbull, Colin M. The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962. Print. Clarion Book. Pg. 82-83.
† D’Aponte, Mimi, and Theatre Communications Group, Publisher. Seventh Generation: An Anthology of Native American Plays. First ed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999. Pg. 155-195.                                            ‡ Todd Titon, Jeffrey, Editor. Worlds Of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. New York: Schirmer Books, 2002. Pg. 73. 3


Westworld Scoring Competition

The following post briefly explains inspiration behind my cue composed for Spitfire Audio and HBO’s Westworld Scoring Competition. Special thanks to Spitfire Audio and the creative team of Westworld for sponsoring this amazing opportunity, this project was the most fun I’ve ever had working on a competition piece! 

Composers were given the full four minute cue from Season 3, Episode 5, including a version with music representing a temp track to guide interpretation. The music track included an extended passage of Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, which I found especially intriguing and challenging. (I now sympathize with so many past composers, “how to respond to Wagner!”). I decided to go along with the meistersinger (as an aspiring opera composer myself) and set to create a charged, symphonic chase sequence to enhance the film and story, and serve the dynamic, dramatic, yet playful vibe of the cue.

I began by dropping in my own temp track as it were of some driving orchestral music I had recorded in a reading session while at San Francisco Conservatory. To my surprise I felt it actually worked! So I had a starting place to built the cue’s soundworld and music. I took inspiration from Ennio Morricone’s use of source sounds to inspire motives and themes. The first big soundmark in the cue is from machine gun fire, which sets the supercharged pace that is later joined with the riveting SFX of self-driving cars, motorcycles, smart missiles and more. I reimagined this rapid fire with a simple ostinato (first appearing in timpani/pno). I used this ostinato to build the perpetual motion and harmonic moves of the sequence, shading it with different orchestral timbres and textures (shout out to John Adams, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky!). I also brought in an electronic sound I had previously created in behemoth sound design system Kyma (from a sampled source recording of a helicopter), which may evoke the gun fire slowed down (as if internalized by characters), foreshadowing/coloring drama, or as a counterpoint to the many engine accelerations and tempi of cue.

I did a quick and dirty harmonic analysis of Wagner’s Ride as well as the stormy vorspiel from Die Walkure and crafted my own harmonic pallet and rhythm to fit the action. In the process I took inspiration from the great chase scherzi of John Williams, the clear, driving ostinati and stingers of Michael Giacchino’s scores, as well as the contemporary orchestral thriller/noir sound of Jeff Beal. While the competition explicitly instructed not to take influence from Ramin Djawadi’s Westworld music, as a big fan of the show and Djawadi’s work I’m sure there was some subliminal influence on the overall timbres and thematic elements. Lastly, over the years I’ve learned a lot from studying Morricone’s music and this cue is no exception in its cocktail of sounds and colors, hopefully creating my own twist within the genre of the dystopic-Western. I am especially grateful to the musicians of the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra and the composer’s reading session whose playing is featured in the overall mix, Thank You!



Why Green New Deal Must Include Arts and Music Programs

The Green New Deal resounds a political and systemic response to the twin crisis of climate change and inequality. With both the climate and economic crisis, governments have prioritized the interests of those who caused the problem, despite the consequences for working people.[1] To save the biosphere and the economy for working Americans, we must have massive public investment in clean, renewable energy, infrastructure, jobs and social services. This makes the Green New Deal an urgent and necessary step. I maintain that these investments must include the arts, especially the performing arts.

We need the arts to create new visions for society, but we also need the arts to bring people together to communally participate in new visions. Since 2016 classical pianist Hunter Noack has for three summers toured rural areas of Oregon with a 9-ft Steinway grand piano on a trailer, combining his love for music and the outdoors. His outdoor concerts collaborate with public lands agencies, as well as private property owners. Like much of America, Oregon typifies the urban-rural divides. Yet, at a concert in Fort Rock State Park southeast of Bend, local ranchers listened on horseback alongside outdoors enthusiasts, music buffs, and families from around the state. These concerts are presented free or at low cost. A third of his audience has never been to a classical concert before, let alone hearing the same piano you would hear in Carnegie Hall, and all of this in a stunning natural amphitheater. But that’s the point. Music brings people together and takes us to distant places. Creating a space for people of diverse political, ethnic, and class backgrounds to appreciate the land, as well as experience the arts together, is democratizing, inspiring, and desperately needed.

This is not a new idea. Noack’s In a Landscape: Classical Music in the Wild project was directly inspired by the Works Progress Administration, the Depression-era public works program which put millions of Americans back to work constructing buildings, roads, bridges, the thousands of trails in our National Parks and much more. The Federal Music, Theater, and Writer’s Projects included in the government stimulus package funded thousands of performances presented free to the public and many in parks. FMP programs raised musical standards in America, championed American composers and musicians, funded music teachers for poor families, supported amateur community ensembles, and funded folk song collection. Many of our nations most enduring and respected ensembles were created during the New Deal. And many more people had access to the arts and education and opportunities to enjoy the wonders of the land in which we live. People also spent time with each other. These arts programs created a community of Americans organized around shared values and a mission to restore America.

The National Endowment for the Arts in 2016 sponsored an initiative, ‘Imagine Your Parks,’ celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service, funding commissions, concerts and events across the country to great success. One such project, led by the Britt Festival in southern Oregon, commissioned composer Michael Gordon to compose a piece engaging Crater Lake National Park. A large orchestra and chorus premiered the piece at the rim of Crater Lake, collaborating with Steiger Butte Singers and Drummers, local members of the indigenous Klamath Tribes. The Federal Music Project similarly supported diverse ensembles, collaborations, and the nation’s folk, classical, jazz, and indigenous music. Especially in the West, ethnic and grassroots music thrived. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration explicitly encouraged folk song and vernacular music as a means of mending conflicts between racial, regional, and class groups in the country. These programs also brought classical music to a wider, diverse audience, and encouraged the creation of American works in the repertoire. Such previously marginalized music rose to unprecedented popularity.

Programs which support cultural vibrancy, community, and appreciation of the land are a model which should be adapted and championed across the country in innovative ways, employing thousands of musicians, composers, artists, and writers to create, teach, and engage the public — supporting the values of equality and ecological responsibility. Green infrastructure projects could also include artist in residence programs and further opportunities for collaborations between diverse artists, communities, and environments. The city of Seattle established an artist residency for the historic Fremont Bridge in an ‘ongoing exploration of how to integrate art in cityscapes.’ Water Music NY was mounted by the Albany Symphony to musically explore the Eerie Canal. Washington State Department of Transportation has championed the first artist-in-residence for a statewide agency in the country. However, commissions and residencies for writers, musicians, and visual artists are often few and far between. There are far more talented, qualified artists than available opportunities. And these few opportunities often pay little more than a stipend. There is much great work being done by musicians and artists around the country, despite lack of funding and support. Many genres, including folk, jazz, classical, and ethnic musics are increasingly marginalized. Arts and music are habitually and deliberately cut from budgets. Yet there is a need, successful historical precedent, and community of artists and organizations ready, willing, and able to do their part to serve their nation and the planet. As in the Depression, they could use a little help from the government. I believe this is the spirit of the Green New Deal.

The arts have the potential to socially bond our communities around shared values and visions of what we may become, and this is what the Green New Deal should aspire to deliver. The U.S. Senate recently passed the decade’s largest public lands package, winning rare bi-partisan support. The overwhelming majority of Americans support public lands. Why? Because there are public lands in every district in America. The arts could help cultivate this truly silent majority into a dominant cultural force. Imagine the potential of numerous concerts, public art projects, community classes and events, environmental initiatives working in tandem with building renewable energy and infrastructure, ecological and public lands restoration and more. Environmental catastrophes, rising inequality and social anomie have created an existential emergency. We need spaces where we can commune with each other and the land, free from media grifting and electronic hallucinations. If we fail to imagine new ways of interacting with each other, the economy, and the resources we use and depend upon, then the struggle for a just and ecologically sound world recedes into fantasy.[2] We do not need more fantasy; we’ve had enough of that. We need active imagination.

[1] Jeffrey, Suzanne. “Up Against the Clock: Climate, Social Movements and Marxism,” ISJ Issue 148 ISJ 148 (Winter 2015).

[2] Magdoff, F., Williams, Chris, & Foster, John Bellamy. (2017). Creating an ecological society: Toward a revolutionary transformation. New York: Monthly Review Press. Pg. 18.


Of Wolves and Rivers

Originally published on Landscape Music Composers Network September 6, 2016

Yellowstone River, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I am honored to be a part of Landscape Music’s upcoming concert with Cadillac Moon Ensemble at the Parrish Art Museum in The Hamptons, NY on September 9, 2016, celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service and our common natural heritage. In creating a piece for this very special concert I turned my inspiration toward Yellowstone. Not only was Yellowstone the nation’s first national park, dedicated in 1872, but the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is a living portrait of wilderness; filled with free rivers, rugged mountains, thick forests and wildlife. Yellowstone exemplifies what much of North America, both east and west, was once like only generations ago.  Nell Shaw Cohen’s Refuge also draws inspiration from Yellowstone, with a movement exploring a musical narrative of bison’s once and future home in the American landscape and consciousness.

Along with the bison, the wolf has become an emblem of such primal wilderness as well. By 1926 wolves had been driven to extinction in Yellowstone, part of a systemic slaughter of predators thought to be vermin and a threat to human interests. Despite successful efforts to undo mistakes of the past and restore wolves, they today still occupy less than 10 percent of their historic range and face threats nearly everywhere they live.[1] The controversies surrounding the reintroduction of wolves in the lower 48 states has again reached critical mass as politicians and agencies in states such as Idaho, Washington, and Wyoming are engaged in active wolf killing programs and efforts to de-list wolves from the Endangered Species Act, after these highly social and intelligent animals have just barely bounced back from the brink of extinction. Wolves are again in the bullseye, as state, federal, environmental, and private stakeholders vie for influence over these animals future.

However, since wolves have been reintroduced to Yellowstone we have bore witness to a beautiful and fascinating phenomena known as trophic cascade. Wolves are a keystone species and are top predators in a complex ecosystem. Reintroducing, as George Monbiot says, “even a small number of wolves transformed not only the ecosystem but the physical geography of the land.”[2] Wolves changed the behavior of deer and elk, which over time, changed vegetation and erosion. Eventually the rivers changed their courses, meandering less, creating more pools and riffles, which increased animal habitat.

When the howls of wolves return to our wild lands we are listening to the sound of a vibrant ecosystem at work. In his environmental cycle Wolf Music Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer states, “Wolf music, wilderness music—they are the same. This is what we share with the wolves; both need space. When the environment is too populated, the wolves retreat and are silent. Our music too clings to silence—silence and space.” If we are to survive we must have clean rivers, healthy forests, and a diversity of life. This means leaving space for other creatures and other cultures to thrive.

I recently spent several days in Yellowstone and was fortunate enough to witness a small pack of wolves in Hayden Valley, early in the morning and late in the evening, just after an elk kill on the Yellowstone River. The great irony of Yellowstone is you are more likely to see wildlife along the road than hiking in the backcountry. As special and unique as it was to witness wolves behaving in their natural habitat, it was interesting as well to witness the various behaviors of visitors. Crowds congregate along viewpoints or off the side of the road. Veteran spotters (some waiting since 4:45 a.m.) keep a sharp eye with huge spotting scopes, mingling amidst a casual passerby looking for an easy sighting. Tour busses stop for a quick glance before moving on to the next sight as park rangers manage traffic, cavort with visitors and occasionally berate them for various transgressions such as walking too close to the animals, or simply parking in the middle of the road. We were fortunate enough to see wolves, grizzly, bison, and bald eagles all within the same scene. A carcass in Yellowstone indeed draws a crowd.

Hayden Valley viewpoint.
Photo: Justin Ralls

“…something draws us to these animals. We obsess over their presence, whether viewed as vermin or in veneration, spectacle or sacrality; they are ambassadors to something wild within ourselves.”

Yet, along with the eco-drama one of the most profound moments was when the wolves began howling and people promptly shushed each other over the ambience of road traffic and car doors, hoping for a comfortable soundbite of one of Yellowstone’s iconic, keynote sounds. Listening to people talk about and admire wolves while watching (and listening) to them, even within the carnival of Yellowstone tourism, was refreshing and inspiring. Even with our reverence held at a distance, something draws us to these animals. We obsess over their presence, whether viewed as vermin or in veneration, spectacle or sacrality; they are ambassadors to something wild within ourselves.

The condition of Yellowstone is one of immense change, both macro and micro. The main roads of the park sit in the caldera of the largest active volcano in the world. The landscape is bubbling, steaming, and constantly settling into new forms. There were two active wildfires in the area while we were there—a reminder of the cycles of disturbance and rebirth that for eons have shaped forests and grasslands. The night before our wolf sighting we had stopped at the same viewpoint to watch an elk herd at dusk; the next day one of these young elk was the meal of countless other animals and by the afternoon the carcass had all but disappeared. And that evening, the wolves downriver and bear gone, the elk had returned.

I often create musical works that explore various changes of texture and transformation, and in the case of my piece Of Wolves and Rivers, use the natural call of wolves as a recurring motive, which floats over near silence or within fuller textures. The instrumentation of Cadillac Moon Ensemble (flute, violin, cello, percussion) allows for a sparse, yet nonetheless “ensemble” sound evoking a multiplicity of sounds within an airy, spacious orchestration. Hearing the wolf in various sonic contexts explores change and resilience, transformation and rebirth.  Humans, to varying degrees, have also been an integral player in these changes for thousands of years. The various cycles and change in nature can be analogous to our experience in music.

Of Wolves and Rivers references and sanctifies through music, both the relationship between wolves and rivers and between humans and their environment. Listen. When the wolf speaks, it is an ancient voice calling us back to participate in the web of life; to live in accord with the natural world and hear it restore itself. When we make space for wolves, we make space for rivers and we make space for ourselves to dream and make music of the landscape.

Of Wolves and Rivers can be viewed on the Music page of this website.




Sketches of Nature: Landscape Music in the Central Asian Steppe


Тувинские просторы.jpg

By Александр Лещёнок, CC BY-SA 4.0Wikimedia.

Originally published on Landscape Music Composers Network March 31, 2016.

Last summer while I was hiking in Kings Canyon National Park, I had much on my mind. Walking the trail—admiring the craggy, breathtaking views of granite and pine, listening and following the rush of cold streams and the calls, near and far, of birds, squirrels, and nameless others—there is much to inspire the composer. As a musician, sound is at the forefront of my awareness. But what about the immensity and awe—even terror—one may feel in these intimidating, yet intimate landscapes? Potential metaphors and meanings hide behind every cloud and tree, gust of wind, or mysterious chirp. Of course, it is up to us as composers to relate these experiences in our musical statements and aspirations. This can be a daunting task as we parse out the myriad cultural contexts and perspectives each of us brings to every piece of music and every excursion in the mountains. Informing ourselves about how other cultures draw upon the landscape in their music gives us new perspectives and helps us to clear the air of our usual conceptions. In this essay, I invite you on an adventure to another culture and another landscape.

The musical culture of the central Asian steppe possesses an embodied connection to landscape. Here, every musical utterance is imbued with place: whether it is the metaphorical feelings of place, the contour of mountains and valleys, or the subtleties and nuances of timbre and sound in the environment itself. Theodore Levin’s Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond explores how a sustained, nomadic herder lifestyle creates mutually supportive, cultural links to the natural world. Tuva is a Russian republic in southern Siberia, nestled within the northwest border of Mongolia. Tuva is famous for its biodiverse landscapes of grassland steppes, deserts, and tall mountains, where traditionally nomadic tribes have lived for centuries. Levin describes “a sonic journey through a landscape and soundscape whose inhabitants preserve what is arguably one of the world’s oldest forms of music-making.”1 Of this sustained tradition in Tuva, Levin writes:

“The spiritual nature of mountains and rivers is believed to be manifested not only through their physical appearance but through the sounds they produce…thus, the echo that results from singing in proximity to a cliff, and the interaction of a human voice with the gurgling of a brook or the swishing air currents of a strong wind may be imbued with spiritual power.”2

The natural world constantly references a spiritual one mediated through sound, both literally and figuratively, as Levin continues:

“Living creatures, not less than inanimate places or landscapes, manifest spiritual power through sound, and for humans, the key to animating and assimilating this power is the imitation of sound.”

In the musical and spiritual ideoscape of the central Asian steppe, the forces of nature’s master-spirits affect everyday life. With just two million people spread over a vast expanse of over one million square miles, the nomadic life is often pitted against the elemental power of nature, early or late snow, rain and wind, testing the resilience and humility of humans. In this landscape, the gods can be charmed with music, and music performance become an act of reciprocity—returning to nature what has been borrowed.

Sound and song exist along a continuum from iconic imitation of sound to ‘aestheticised’ imitation of natural sound to autonomous musical forms such as the Mongolian urtyn du or “long song,” a varied stylistic technique and song form. Some scholars have remarked the melodic contour of these songs, generally absent of conjunct movement, can be interpreted as ‘hill shaped’ with ascents and descents not unlike the topography the songs were performed in. Referring to a robust, extended form, making a subgroup of the style, Mongolians described it as “spacious,” “wide,” “long-lasting,” and “of great size.” Different melodic contours are associated with different environments. Long songs performed in mountain areas have descending contours; those performed in the steppe (looking up at the mountains) start low and ascend.3 These connections between mountains and melody reveal themselves on the surface of a complex relationship between nature and culture.

Mimetic exchange is central to the reciprocal relationship practiced by nomadic Mongolians and Tuvans, articulating in performance the linking of nature spirits, human beings, and other deities with the origins of songs, music, and instruments. Instrument making and subsequent performance are imbued with spiritual power and kinship relation. Images of the landscape are mapped in the contours of melodies and dances, the body used as a metaphoric landscape, imitating sounds and shapes of the environment.

In Western culture, the body may be considered a part of nature. When used in artistic performance, the body is subordinate to the remotest rituals and references aspects of culture over nature. Mongols, however, use metaphors of kinship among humans, performance, and nature. The inspiration and practice of long song, for example, requires a ritual embodiment of natural features and spiritual power. The folk traditions of long song, overtone singing, horse-head fiddle, and epic (song narration) all share with each other intrinsic connections between spirits and nature. The sounds produced by the tsuur (a rare instrument that amplifies overtones of the voice) imitate the sounds of wind, trees, animals, and water that resound through the mountains. As scholar Carole Pegg points out, this relation is not merely imitation but reciprocation to the spirits of the universe from which the materials were taken to make the instrument.

One of the ways this sound making intersects with our own contemporary creative approaches is the Tuvan idea of boidus churumaly, a “sketch of nature.”5 Tuvan sketches of nature are quite broad, the sound medium varying from throat singing, jaw harp, and whistling—yet all employ timbre as an expressive and core element. Sketches of nature typically convey steppe or grassland, steep mountains, or the taiga forest. Sounds produced in the resonant low chest are metaphorical of towering heights and peaks. While traveling in the mountains, the acoustic changes with your elevation. This, too, is reflected in the performance and creation of a nature sketch. Melodies evoking the sound of a mountain river flowing full and lively, according to one musician, should be a “large sound.”6 Melodies are known to become like streams as they fall from on high. The rivers of the grassland steppes, open places, are soft and slow.

Music often functions as a translation of experience, and the Tuvan “sketch of nature” is an embodiment of this translation.

For contemporary composers, musicians, and eco-theorists seeking to embody landscape and nature in our own musical traditions, several parallels between our work and the Tuvan and Mongolian traditions become apparent. The creativity, inspiration, and purpose of both kinds of music are the natural results of time spent in place. Places where the human is dwarfed in scale, where we are somehow in awe and humbled. While in the great mountains and forest, deserts, tundras, and natural areas where we, as composers, may seek our respite and muse, we are brought into relation. We revel in the reminder that it is here, in the landscape, where our culture, our aspirations, and dreams are made and contained. It is transferring this sense of reverence, mediating it through sound and music and experience, that we find close company with these arguably ancient traditions. Music often functions as a translation of experience, and the Tuvan “sketch of nature” is an embodiment of this translation.

As children grow up with the rhythms of life—hunting in the taiga (boreal forest), riding in the grassland, or spending time in the mountains—there is sound. Those considered most talented will naturally bring this body of sonic knowledge to the forefront of their music. The natural environment is present both in a participatory and presentational realm. These traditions challenge us to consider a larger whole when thinking about the links we make between landscape and music. Where and how is an instrument made? What is the relationship between a culture and a natural environment? What is the relationship between spirit and nature, both individually and collectively? How is our contemporary musical life in reciprocity with the natural world? For those of us living in North America, these questions are all the more enticing. For our spirit-masters, those of the forests, the cold running rivers and streams, the tundra, the grasslands, prairies, and mountains—filled with similar plants and animals—are not too dissimilar. They are listening and singing. How will we respond?

1. Levin, T., & Süzükei, Valentina. (2006). Where rivers and mountains sing: Sound, music, and nomadism in Tuva and beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pg. 3
2. Levin, T., & Huun-Huur-Tu. (1999). Tuva, among the spirits sound, music, and nature in Sakha and Tuva. (Smithsonian global sound for libraries). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways. Pg. 3-4
3. Pegg, C. (2001). Mongolian music, dance, & oral narrative : Performing diverse identities. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Pg. 106
4. Ibid. Pg. 99
5. Levin, T., & Süzükei, Valentina. (2006). Where rivers and mountains sing: Sound, music, and nomadism in Tuva and beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pg. 88
6. Ibid. Pg. 90